Andi Mills, of Honea Path, right, takes a break between classes with Lander University classmate Kurt Keeter, of Ninety Six, while her service dog, Mr. Tibbs, relaxes on a cushion at her feet. Surgery last summer restored her eyesight after spending four years as legally blind.
Andi Mills, of Honea Path, has been a student at Lander University for two-and-a half years but, when she returned for classes in September, it was the first time that she could actually see the campus. "I saw flowers, the landscaping, the buildings. I saw my fellow students and professors for the first time."
Four years ago, a blood disorder, macular degeneration and cataracts combined to rob Mills of most of her eyesight, leaving her legally blind. This summer, she underwent surgery to remove the cataracts, which were in danger of rupturing, and to implant artificial lenses in each eye.
She said, "I hoped the operation would benefit my left eye so I could have a little clarity to help me through my last year of school." But she got more than she or her doctor bargained for.
Before the surgeries in July and August, Mills was blind in her right eye and could see only hazy images out of the left.
Dr. Jay Montgomery, of Montgomery & Riddle Eyecare in Clinton, who operated on Mills, described her as "a wonderful person, a wonderful patient," and said they took time to pray together before each procedure. He said the operations were more complicated than usual cataract surgery because of Mills' retinal dystrophy and accumulated scar tissue, which took some time to repair before new intra-ocular lenses could be implanted. Replacing the lenses in each eye was pretty routine and when Montgomery finished, she was able to clearly see him and others in the treatment room.
Montgomery said, "I hoped to give her some sight back, but I was surprised at the outcome."
One of the difficulties Mills experienced after regaining her sight was getting her eyes to work in tandem. "I started playing video games to get them working together."
She relied on her service dog, a yellow Labrador retriever named Mr. Tibbs, to guide her from classroom to classroom. But, while she can now navigate the Lander campus on her own, she and Tibbs are still inseparable.
Mills is a diabetic and predisposed to rapid and life threatening changes in her blood sugar levels. Tibbs has special medical alert training and can sense an impending diabetic attack before it occurs. When he does, he warns her so she can get to the glucose or insulin she always has in her possession.
Mills was a long-distance truck driver for 28 years before losing her sight. In 2007, she and a friend from Abbeville completed a nearly 1,600-mile trip on horseback from Ventura, Calif., to Magnolia, Ark., to promote stroke awareness and to honor their sisters who were both stroke victims.
The following year, in the span of 18 days, her world went dark and she devastated when doctors told her she would not see again. "It was as if somebody took me out of my life and dropped me in another place. I lost my job, my independence, my self-esteem and my confidence. I had to reinvent my whole life."
Mills entered a program in Columbia, which taught her, among other things, to read Braille and use a cane to help her get around. But living with blindness was a struggle. She recalls brushing her teeth with an antibiotic ointment, mistaking it for toothpaste. Not being able to see meant having to reorganize even the simple routines associated with daily living. She did that, too, and also received vocational training on using a specialized computer that would help her to read.
She said, "I couldn't accept my blindness, couldn't deal with it. I needed a reason to get out of bed each morning. I needed goals, a purpose." After deciding to resume her education, she enrolled at Lander as a second semester freshman majoring in English with an emphasis in professional writing. She and Tibbs were the first guide dog team on the campus.
"I was scared to death," she said, noting she was 59 at the time. "I was 40 years older than the average student, and today I'm older than all of my professors."
Mills, 61, has two children, five grandchildren and a great-grandchild. She's had to rely on a friend for transportation from home to campus and back, but that could change soon. Having her eyesight back means she can apply for a driver's license and get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle for the first time in five years.
Her son has given her a van and she wants to have the side panels painted with the words, "I believe in miracles," and the Biblical quote from Matthew 19:26, "... with God, all things are possible."
Despite Mills' miraculous recovery, she is still living with macular degeneration. The condition could worsen and, if it does, she could lose her eyesight again. But she doesn't obsess about that possibility. As she put it, "I can see today."